Friday’s tornado may be the most photographed in local history

ByDavid M. Conte

Apr 30, 2022


Tornado rips through Andover, Kansas

A tornado touched down in south-central Kansas on Friday night, causing damage in its wake, but few injuries. Residents of the Wichita area, Andover and Sedgwick and Butler counties are picking up the pieces.

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It’s been a decade since a major tornado hit the Wichita area, and in that time technology has advanced, to say the least.

On Friday night, just after a tornado ripped through the Andover area, social media was suddenly flooded with high-quality photos and videos from citizen journalists who had either spotted the tornado outside their home or captured it from their car.

They appeared on Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and they were so good. Some showed close-ups of the tornado on the ground, its devastating cloud of debris perfectly in focus. One showed crushed cars thrown against the exterior of the hard-hit Andover YMCA.

Another from inside the YMCA, shot just after the storm passed, showed falling ceiling debris almost landing on someone. It was shared and shared and shared.

Videos emerged of the tornado crossing the freeway right in front of the cars. Groups of people who had participated in outdoor sporting events were photographed in parking lots, their phones pointed skyward.

The images were so clear and they appeared so quickly. The difference between this tornado and the last major one that hit Wichita in 2012 was stark. Within hours, a whole population of photojournalists was born.

Friday night’s tornado is arguably the most photographed and filmed in Wichita-area history, and the fact that the majority of people now carry high-quality cameras in their pockets is just one of the reasons, say storm chasers and photo experts.

The time of day couldn’t have been better for illuminating the storm – the sun was low on the western horizon and it cast a golden glow over the swirling white cloud.

Plus, said Mike Smith, a retired meteorologist who has photographed storms his entire career, this tornado was particularly photogenic.

“It was so unusual, and the radar is just amazing,” he said. “It was cored in an area without precipitation. The tornado was barely attached to the parent storm, and at one point all you have is a ball of debris. It was very easy to see and photograph.

The storm was so clear people could see it from Wichita. The owner of Italian restaurant Angelo’s posted a video of the twister clearly visible from the parking lot at Central and Woodlawn. A citizen who had watched a show at Southeast High School captured a crystal-clear image of the parking lot there.

Before the sun even set, a man whose Andover home was flattened by the storm posted a video on his Facebook page showing what was left, including shots of one of his cars poised on the ‘other.

Interestingly, Smith said, the 1991 tornado that devastated Andover was also called the most photographed in history – up to that point. One of the most famous images of the 1991 tornado was shot by Earle “Duke” Evanswho got out of the shower, grabbed his new camcorder and ran outside to film the huge storm.

“It was the camcorder tornado, and a lot of people said that at that time it was the most photographed in history,” Smith said. “You could call it the smart phone tornado.”

Wichita Eagle visual editor Jaime Green has photographed tornadoes and their aftermath throughout his professional career. In fact, his first day on the job was the day of the May 3, 1999 storm that devastated Haysville.

She was also amazed by the number of high-quality images that emerged immediately after the storm. In the past, photojournalists were lucky enough to arrive at a scene in time to capture even one of these images.

Most of the photos and videos she saw on Friday would be good enough to win professional photojournalism awards, she said.

“I’ve spent my entire career trying to get a shot like everyone in Wichita did on Friday,” she said.

Still, Smith said, he wishes photography wasn’t everyone’s first instinct when a dangerous storm approaches. He would rather they go inside and take refuge.

But the photos that flooded social media, he said, may have at least persuaded people who saw them that the storm was serious and that they should take shelter.

“I wish people wouldn’t come out looking for the tornado,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re ever going to coach that from Kansas.”

This story was originally published April 30, 2022 1:25 p.m.

Denise Neil has been covering restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is where diners can get local restaurant information. She is a regular judge at local cooking competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about the restaurant business.